The Resilient Meadowlands

The New Jersey Meadowlands is a vast wetland ecosystem located in one of the most populous regions in the nation, with the Manhattan skyline framing its eastern edge. Considered a swampy wasteland for much of the 20th century, some portions of the Meadowlands became a literal dumping ground—landfill central for northeastern New Jersey—while other portions were paved over to make way for shopping, sports, and entertainment venues. Beginning in the 1970s, after the federal Clean Water Act reduced pollution inputs and the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission regulated and closed landfills, the environment gradually improved.

In the 1990s, as scientists at Rutgers and elsewhere joined with concerned citizens and conservation groups, the Meadowlands expanse was reconsidered with fresh eyes and over the decades has come to be valued as an ecological wonder. It provides a wetland buffer against flooding (think Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans, a city built on former wetlands); is home to important flora and fauna; and is emerging as a serene and surprising ecotourism destination just a few miles from New York City.

Rutgers researchers study the plants and animals of the Meadowlands to understand how pollution affects the ecosystem and what can be done to restore its health. The subject of one ongoing study is the blue crab, which is banned from commercial fishing in the Meadowlands because of the high levels of contaminants, such as mercury, dioxin, and PCBs, found in the species. A wide range of students—from high school to the doctoral level—have been able to conduct blue crab and other Meadowlands research with Professor Judith S. Weis, a Rutgers biologist who is a leading expert on the Meadowlands and other salt marsh ecosystems.

  • The Resilient Meadowlands
    A Day of Research in the New Jersey Meadowlands

    Just off exit 16W of the New Jersey Turnpike, the 32-square-mile New Jersey Meadowlands ecosystem is four miles from Manhattan, with more than 1,160 acres of publicly accessible parkland and walking and paddling trails. More than 900 animal and plant species have been reported in the Meadowlands.

  • The Resilient Meadowlands
    A Day of Research in the New Jersey Meadowlands

    Judith S. Weis, right, a professor at Rutgers–Newark, studies the Meadowlands and other salt marsh ecosystems. Here, her research team unloads equipment in preparation for a day of fieldwork at the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission in Lyndhurst.

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    A Day of Research in the New Jersey Meadowlands

    The group heads into the Lyndhurst Nature Reserve. There are 3.5 miles of nature trails at the Meadowlands Commission’s DeKorte Park campus.

  • The Resilient Meadowlands
    A Day of Research in the New Jersey Meadowlands

    The team searches for blue crabs, which are banned from commercial fishing in the Meadowlands due to contamination. They compare contaminated Meadowlands crabs with crabs raised in the relatively pristine waters near the RU Marine Field Station in Tuckerton. By studying how contamination changes crab behavior, the team learns how contaminants affect the food chain and ecosystem.

  • The Resilient Meadowlands
    A Day of Research in the New Jersey Meadowlands

    Sona Mason is working toward her master’s degree in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources. This interdisciplinary department focuses on global change including managing natural resources in urban ecosystems, studying the evolutionary origins and maintenance of biodiversity, and conserving and restoring native ecosystems. Sona studies fiddler crabs.

  • The Resilient Meadowlands
    A Day of Research in the New Jersey Meadowlands

    As the winner of a Liberty Science Center Partners in Science competition, high school student Sophie Goggins, left, was able to spend a summer working with Rutgers scientists. The intensive, eight-week experience pairs high school juniors and seniors with mentors in science, health, and technical fields and challenges them to participate in ongoing research and independent projects.

  • The Resilient Meadowlands
    A Day of Research in the New Jersey Meadowlands

    Seining for samples is a two-person job. Seine nets have floats attached to the top and weights attached to the bottom. Poles at each end are held vertically as the netting, flush with the Meadowlands’ sandy bottom, is dragged through the water.

  • The Resilient Meadowlands
    A Day of Research in the New Jersey Meadowlands

    The team tries various locations to collect samples.

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    A Day of Research in the New Jersey Meadowlands

    The catch is examined. No blue crabs yet!

  • The Resilient Meadowlands
    A Day of Research in the New Jersey Meadowlands

    Meadowlands blue crabs eat a diet rich in contaminants such as metals (mercury is prevalent) and PCBs. Metals are thought to cause neurological and therefore behavioral changes. The crabs consume ribbed mussels, fiddler crabs, mummichogs (small fish), and other estuarine prey as well as algae and sediment.

  • The Resilient Meadowlands
    A Day of Research in the New Jersey Meadowlands

    This summer, Salt Marshes: A Natural and Unnatural History, coauthored by Judith S. Weis (above) and Carol A. Butler, was published by RU Press, which notes: “Now championed as critical habitats ... because of the environmental service and protection they provide, these ecological wonders were once considered unproductive wastelands ... Salt Marshes offers ... essential information.”

  • The Resilient Meadowlands
    A Day of Research in the New Jersey Meadowlands

    As an undergraduate researcher and Rutgers–Newark Honors College student, Ross Roudez, right, coauthored articles that appeared in several leading academic journals including Biological Invasions and Estuaries and Coasts. Undergraduate researcher James Lord, left, replicated in the laboratory the natural diet of crabs collected from the Meadowlands and from Rutgers’ Tuckerton field station.

  • The Resilient Meadowlands
    A Day of Research in the New Jersey Meadowlands

    Undergraduate researcher and Rutgers–Newark Honors College student Jonathan Ramirez studied aggressive behavior in Meadowlands crabs. As a senior, he was a peer tutor in the Biology Learning Center at Rutgers–Newark.

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    A Day of Research in the New Jersey Meadowlands

    In a study published in the March 2009 issue of Estuaries and Coasts, researchers Reichmuth, Roudez, Glover, and Weis found “when [Tuckerton] crabs were caged in the [Meadowlands] or fed food from the [Meadowlands] ... their prey capture ability declined significantly, and mercury in their muscle tissue increased significantly, indicating environmental factors were responsible for the behavioral differences.”

  • The Resilient Meadowlands
    A Day of Research in the New Jersey Meadowlands

    The group heads down a different trail to try another sampling location.

  • The Resilient Meadowlands
    A Day of Research in the New Jersey Meadowlands

    With the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission complex in the background, then-Ph.D. candidate Jessica Reichmuth, left, and undergraduate James Lord seine for blue crabs. Jessica received her Ph.D. this year.

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    A Day of Research in the New Jersey Meadowlands

    Bingo! Jessica Reichmuth holds a blue crab caught at the last seining site of the day. Jessica’s doctoral research demonstrates that contaminants found in the Meadowlands are primarily responsible for impaired predator behavior in blue crabs.

  • The Resilient Meadowlands
    A Day of Research in the New Jersey Meadowlands

    In June 2009, Jessica Reichmuth and Professor Weis discussed their work with Tuckerton and Meadowlands blue crabs during a lecture given at the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission. In presenting their findings, they explained their experimental methodology and the primary outcome of their work: contamination causes behavioral impairment in blue crabs.

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    A Day of Research in the New Jersey Meadowlands

    Rutgers research engages a full range of students, from high schoolers to doctoral candidates. From left to right are: undergraduate (now alumnus) Jonathan Ramirez, Ph.D. candidate (now Dr.) Jessica Reichmuth, high school student Sophie Goggins, undergraduate James Lord, master’s candidate Sona Mason, biology professor Judith S. Weis, and undergraduate (now alumnus) Ross Roudez.

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